As I wind down from this semester of teaching everything from prepositional phrases to Paradise Lost, I’d thought I’d share my own list of recommended reading.
These are not political, pared-down tomes. Some authors are dead. Others are quietly teaching at universities. But all lead to contemplation, of which we have way too little today.
It’s a good idea to revisit some of the classics and the principles of conservatism they lay out. Awareness of our rich heritage and vigorous intellectual tradition can help to counter false charges.
Pick up if you can the current issue of Modern Age (http://www.isi.org/journals/modern_age.html), a volume celebrating its fiftieth anniversary after the founding by one of the greatest conservative intellectuals, Russell Kirk. (I chose my dissertation director when I read one of his essays in Modern Age.) This journal is full of wisdom, common sense, and clear prose—and so unlike the journals held in prestige by most hiring and tenure committees. Its contributors are men and women of learning (real learning). And real learning requires the humility of acknowledging the great minds that came before. I identified with an essay by Ewa Thompson, a Polish émigré, who writes about her and her family’s horrific experiences under communism, her emigration to the U.S., and then her encounter with violent radicals on her college campus as they attempted to institute communism here. Although I never suffered under communism directly, my parents and other relatives have. I have the same contempt for the spoiled radicals who wreak havoc on our neighborhoods and campuses, destroying the good and the beautiful in their attempts to institute their own ideologies. In the same issue is a commentary about the Hungarian chemist-turned-philosopher Michael Polanyi—who systematically challenged the belief that men through science would eventually obtain a “God’s-eye-view” of the world. This of course is the justification for all “progressive” ideologies, especially those totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century that killed millions.
A book that I had ordered a while back and finally got around to finishing is Christianity and Classical Culture by Charles Norris Cochrane, originally published in 1940, and reprinted for a very reasonable price by Liberty Fund http://www.libertyfund.org/details.asp?displayID=1852. It has inspired me to resolve to read more Augustine in 2008. Cochrane outlines the transformation in the transition from classical to Christian thought. Every celebrity-Obama-Oprah worshipper should read this history of ideas. While these celebrities claim to be “progressive,” they are doing no less than reverting back to paganism and the worship of emperors. Like the Roman emperors, they recognize no authority above themselves. This book will help you see from an intellectual perspective how really radical Christianity was for its time and how deeply it girds the values and principles we hold dear. Worshipping at the altar of Barack (or even a Republican candidate) is regressive—not progressive. A candidate’s humility before God (not before the opinion polls) should be the decisive factor.
As part of my own curriculum affirmative action campaign I encourage you to read or re-read Paradise Lost. If you attended college in the last twenty years, it was probably taken off your reading list. You may be like some of my students who are put off by the language, but the subtlety and the relevance to the current situation comes out in each re-reading. The seduction of Eve by the “glozing” liar is a morality tale for every teenage girl baring her breasts or otherwise believing herself a “goddess” through the lies of some pimply egotist or pimp like “Girls Gone Wild” founder Joe R. Francis (may he rot in jail). To counter the reigning dogma of relativism, one should read Dante’s Inferno to see how the “neutrals” spend eternity chasing banners to and fro. One sees this in the fads now chased after: alternative “spirituality,” meaningless consumer goods, the latest titillation, etc.
I tried to slog through the amoral, meaningless worlds today’s celebrated fiction writers create. I despair over the state of the publishing industry dominated by those who see dollar signs dancing before their eyes at prospective authors who fit into the correct “ethnic” groups and who proclaim the correct political pieties.
I do have one novel to recommend: The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud. Read it for the opening scene of an egotistical 1960s leftover journalist believing he is wowing innocent undergraduates as he lectures to them. The scene reminds me of Tom Wolfe in its depiction of the pretensions of the privileged radicals.
It occurred to me that many of the novels published today follow the dictates of “communication” rather than the “communion,” which Allen Tate writes about in the collection, Essays of Four Decades, also available from ISI Press http://www.isi.org/. In the opening piece, his Phi Beta Kappa address at the University of Minnesota in 1952, “The Man of Letters in the Modern World,” Tate distinguishes between the information dissemination of mass communication and real literature. Tate comes from the older conservative tradition, the Agrarians, who saw the connection between community, nature, religion, and art. In that vein, Tate invokes the sacredness of literature. He claims that “the man of letters” “must recreate for his age the image of man,” and should “propagate standards by which other men may test that image, and distinguish the false from the true.”
But the man of letters has a more immediate responsibility, he says:
“He must distinguish the difference between mere communication . . . and the rediscovery of the human condition in the living arts. He must discriminate and defend the difference between mass communication, for the control of men, and the knowledge of man which literature offers us for human participation.”
In our information age--the age of podcasts, MySpace pages, instant messaging, and decreasing literacy—Tate’s words ring more true than ever. Think about what information is being disseminated instantaneously: the latest Britney outrage, the latest billionaire celebrity political endorsement. Then pick up a book or a good journal, find a comfortable, quiet place, and read.
And thank you everyone for your letters. I can’t always respond, but I do read them and gain encouragement from them.